Is a waste-picker’s life less valuable than any other Indian citizen? Why is it that waste-pickers are not provided with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) since their work involves hazardous conditions? Why are companies not being held accountable for not implementing the Extended Producer Responsibility Guidelines as mandated by the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016? How long will the municipal corporations refuse to acknowledge the contribution of the waste pickers in keeping our cities clean? Can this pandemic provide the required stimulus to fix the exploitative approach, and how can this be done?
This article highlights the plight of waste-pickers who belong to the informal sector and undertake household doorstep waste collection. They cannot work from home. They play a crucial role in acting as the frontline defence against COVID-19, by helping clear out and manage the daily municipal solid waste (MSW) generated by hundreds of millions of homes across Indian cities.
No Insurance For Waste-Pickers – Even Amid a Pandemic
Rajashree Bansode is not sure whether it is better to die due to poverty or by contracting COVID-19. She is a waste-worker who lives in the Kasturba Gandhi Vasahat in Aundh (Pune), which is a hotspot. She is the only breadwinner supporting a family of five. Her husband was employed as a security guard in a city mall, but has been out of work since the lockdown. Her ailing mother-in- law is bed-ridden due to diabetes-related complications. “Every day is filled with worry because I don’t know whether what I am picking up from households is contaminated with coronavirus: tissues, gloves and face masks… you name it and it’s all discarded as household waste… If any of these items are contaminated I’m doomed,” she says. Money is scarce since their savings have been exhausted. The additional source of income that she used to earn by selling the recyclable component of the household waste such as plastic bottles, cardboard, paper has also dried up since the kabadiwalla shops have also been shut since the lockdown. “Can we live without generating waste in some shape or form in a pandemic,” she asks.
Pune (Maharashtra) has been one of the hardest hit areas in the Covid-19 pandemic, and along with Mumbai, is considered to be a hotspot. Waste-workers like Rajashree, have been working to keep the city clean and contain the spread of infection and sickness caused by the virus.
However, unlike other frontline warriors like healthcare workers, port workers or even journalists – who have been offered insurance cover due to their job-related hazards – waste workers have not been offered any such protection.
Role of Waste-Pickers in Recycling
Urban India generates approximately 62 million tonnes (MT) of municipal solid waste per annum. Only 43 MT of the waste is treated, and 31 MT is dumped in landfill sites (Lahiry, 2019). Waste management is the responsibility of the municipal corporation, however waste-pickers play an important role.
There is a dearth of accurate data on waste-pickers, but it is estimated that there are between 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers in India (Bose & Bhattacharya, 2017), the majority of them being women (Thompson, 2019). Financial compulsions are generally the reason to opt for working as a waste-picker. Once they start working in this trade, other domestic household work opportunities generally become scarce as people don’t want to employ waste-pickers for household chores such as cooking, cleaning utensils etc.
Some waste-pickers like Rajashree offer a fee-based doorstep waste-collection service, as well as facilitate the recycling of the collected waste. This is done by separating the recyclable (dry) waste into various ‘fractions’ and directing its reverse flow via a waste dealer network back to bigger recyclers. This is a manual process but it ensures that less waste reaches the landfill.
How Can One Recycle Dry Waste When ‘Kabaddiwallahs’ Aren’t Operational During Lockdown?
The waste collection fee charged to the households is a nominal amount, and generally ranges between Rs 60-70 per month in Pune. The rationale behind this small fee (from the point of view of the householders) is that the waste-picker can earn additional income by selling the different components of the dry waste. By picking up the waste from approximately 150 houses, a waste-picker’s monthly income can range between Rs 12,000-13,000. That too is possible only if the waste is properly segregated at source, otherwise the resource and the monetary value embedded in the dry waste is lost (for example, if sanitary waste such as soiled sanitary napkins or diapers come in contact with recyclable waste such as plastic bottles, then it generally ends up in a landfill.)
But how is recycling dry waste possible when the ‘kabaddi’ shops have been shut down?
When the lockdown was declared, the government did not include waste-pickers and kabadiwallas in the ‘essential services’ category. This resulted in a breakdown of the recycling value chain. It also left the waste-pickers devoid of the financial liquidity necessary to procure essentials like groceries, medicines etc. Discriminated and left out in the cold by the central and state governments – who refuse to acknowledge their contribution especially during these challenging times – they struggle to keep body and soul together while fending for their families.
Discrimination Against Waste-Pickers
Trapped by poverty, lack of available job opportunities caused by the lockdown, social and caste biases, and in some cases, the absence of other vocational skills – most of these women become targets of domestic violence and exploitation at home and beyond.
Waste-pickers have a very high risk of coming in contact with COVID- infected waste generated from houses, due to various factors such as: poor implementation of the government guidelines pertaining to home-generated COVID-19 waste, no means to monitor and punish errant behaviour, waste generated by asymptomatic carriers and the social stigma associated with COVID-19 which may lead to concealing any initial signs.
Lack of PPE for Waste-Pickers Makes Them More Vulnerable to COVID-19
The surge in discarded masks, gloves, and other cleaning materials being used to safeguard oneself from coronavirus are adding to the quantum of the existing biomedical waste generated at the household level, thereby making a bad situation worse for the waste-pickers. For example, approximately 1 billion soiled disposable sanitary pads are discarded in India every month (Malaviya, 2019).
However, a lacuna in the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 categorises sanitary waste as ‘domestic hazardous waste’ and not ‘biomedical waste’, which means that such items can be discarded along with household waste.
Sanitary waste such as pads and diapers contain human blood and body fluids – waste-pickers like Rajashree come in contact with both these items on a daily basis. Such waste is dangerous for the waste-pickers as they can contract a host of infectious and respiratory diseases apart from COVID.
While some waste pickers have been provided with gloves and a face masks by NGOs, there are thousands of waste-pickers working for private waste contractors, who are not given any type of personal protection gear (PPE). Many waste-workers have not even received their wages for the past few months. However, since there is no grievance redressal system available to them, they continue to work in the fear of losing out on their earnings.
Most waste-pickers, who in pre-COVID era, relied on picking up street/commercial waste, have been forced to fall back on their savings or seek financial assistance from friends or relatives, due to the closure of commercial establishments. Some have been reduced to begging or depending upon free food distribution outlets.
What Can Be Done to Help Waste-Pickers?
Exploiting this vulnerable section of the population must stop as it encourages predatory behaviour by other stakeholders who form the main constituents of the value chain that impacts a waste-picker namely, company or brand-owners (manufacturer of the product); householders (consumer); municipal representatives (policy-makers and enforcers).
Role of Company / Brand Owners in Waste Disposal
The Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, mandate that companies must work alongside the municipal corporations to take back the waste generated by their brands. However, this is not being implemented and needs to be enforced in earnest and in a time bound manner. For example, brand owners of sanitary hygiene products like pads and diapers, are required to provide proper disposal pouches for such products, but that is not being done. This type of waste must be scientifically disposed at the point of generation itself, but that does not happen, and the municipal corporations/requisite authorities are permitting this wrong practice to continue unabated.
A large number of soiled disposable sanitary pads make their way into municipal landfills through the MSW collected from households, while others are disposed by discarding them in the open, or by flushing, burning, dumping in water bodies etc.
However, now that an additional stream of biomedical waste has been added due to the COVID-19 pandemic – which has to be handled through the municipal waste collection system – it is important to focus on reducing the additional burden of managing the sanitary waste in the urban and rural contexts. In the rural context, the situation is even more complex as formal MSW collection mechanisms are absent (Sharholy, Ahmad, Mahmood, & Trivedi, 2008)
Onus of Regular Medical Check-Ups of Waste-Pickers
Brand owners of both disposable sanitary pads and diaper products must be directed to implement the EPR, by the government, with immediate effect. Waste-pickers can be involved in this process, but they must be compensated by the brand owners for this work and be provided with adequate PPE, hand-washing and sanitation facilities.
In addition, regular medical check-ups of the concerned waste-pickers needs to conducted in order to prevent another health disaster. Also, insurance paid for by the brand owners must be offered to the waste-pickers so as to provide them with the means to handle a medical and/or life emergency event. This activity should be audited independently, and heavy fines must be levied in case of default by the manufacturers/brand owners. Consumer education and awareness building initiatives right from the school level onwards are important to build an awareness about proper waste management practices. Earmarking some of the CSR funds for the purpose of the welfare of the waste-pickers can be an option.
Why Householders Should Overcome ‘Not-In-My-Backyard’ Approach
This approach can enable proper source-level segregation. This in turn can facilitate realising the resource value embedded in the waste. For example, nearly 70 percent of the MSW generated at the household-level comprises of organic (food scraps, vegetable peels) etc, which can be composted. In several large residential complexes in the Pune metropolitan region, in-situ composting is also being done. Undertaking regular fumigation of common spaces, and timely waste clearance of the hazardous waste can help to prevent the spread of infection. In these challenging times, the managing committee members of residential welfare associations must also ensure the timely payment of the dues by the residents to the waste-pickers. Annotating the hazardous/bio-medical waste for easy identification such as a red dot, and handing it over separately to the waste-picker can be done to avoid unnecessary contact and the spread of infection.
Role of Municipal Corporations/Government
It’s high time that the government authorities acknowledge the role of the waste-pickers in managing the daily MSW. During the peak of the outbreak, several policy changes were made in an expeditious manner in order to contain the spread of the pandemic. The virus does not discriminate between socio-economic classes nor on the basis of gender, caste and religion. Even if the authorities choose to turn a blind eye (as has been the case for all these years), the fact is that waste-pickers are at a high risk of contracting the virus and transmitting it – because of the nature and the drudgery of the work that they perform.
Given the exponential rate of transmission, an already bleak situation can turn completely hopeless.
At that time the authorities will have no choice but to spend huge amounts of the taxpayers’ funds to pay for its lack of foresight. Providing PPEs to waste-pickers immediately is one preventive solution amongst others.
Bose, R., & Bhattacharya, A. (2017, May 12). Why Ragpickers, Unrecognised And Unpaid, Are Critical For Waste Management In India. Retrieved from IndiaSpend.
Economic Times. (2020, March 24). Govt to provide Rs 50 lakh health insurance per health care worker for 3 months due to Coronavirus.
Lahiry, S. (2019, May 8). India’s challenges in waste management. Retrieved from Down To Earth.
Malaviya, S. (2019, February 26). The mammoth task of managing menstrual waste in India. Retrieved from Down to Earth.
Sharholy, M, Ahmad, K, Mahmood, G, & Trivedi, RC (2008). Municipal Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities – A Review. Waste Management 28(2), 459-467.
Singh, B (2020, April 27). Journalist in Assam will be covered with a life insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh. Retrieved from Economic Times
Thompson, A. (2019, May 9). The Body Shop initiative that’s changing the lives of waste pickers in Bangalore. Retrieved from Marie Claire.
(Dr Raji Ajwani is a Post Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)